The question of space has assumed urgency in contemporary discourses. But there is a lack of up-to-date terminology and methodology that would do justice to the vitality and complexity with which this question is being acted out in practice. Now, two significant publications devote themselves to stage space and its intermedial expansions.
“A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him.” With this assertion, in the 1960s, Peter Brook provided a definition of theatre, which was to retain its validity for a long time. The simultaneous presence of two persons in a room – an actor, an independent observer – and the experience of real presence, as for example when eyes meet, seemed to him a sine qua non. Nowadays, however, theatregoers can be certain neither of being allocated an actual place to watch the performance, nor of sharing the space around them with an actor.
In some cases they may be equipped with a mobile telephone or a tablet PC and then left to their own devices in the foyers and corridors. They may be sent to empty industrial ruins where a plethora of labyrinth-like rooms evokes confusion rather than clarity, and they find themselves as figures in a setting that for them is unfathomable. They may be handed a city map and placed in a streetscape at twilight, taken to the top floor of a high-rise building or simply put on the stage themselves. The only certainty is that all visitors are undergoing the same experience: increasingly, the audience is being denied its customary place – and its reaction is predominantly positive.
Theatre as a space-forming process
In its playful exploration of spatial conditions the performing art seems more than any other genre to be in tune with the times, even if it does not leave the constraining walls of the Black Box but incorporates virtual worlds by means of electronic aids. Thus it is hardly surprising that the question of space has assumed urgency in contemporary discourses. Here, however, it becomes evident that there is a lack of up-to-date terminology and methodology that would do justice to the vitality and complexity with which this question is being acted out in practice. For the new spatial structures motivated by electronic innovations, physical insights and geopolitical upheavals sweep away the traditional model of a container room and an independent observer’s position. This also leads to an implosion of the apparent certainties of theatre theory: What is meant by “presence” in view of Facetime, Skype or other televisual transmissions? What does “live” mean in times of Twitter, Whatsapp and other inflationary (short) news channels? What is the relationship of the recipient to the scene of the event? What leads to contact? Where are the borders defined?
Regarding the deconstruction of places and the transmission of events in other spaces simply as a manifestation of contemporary aesthetics falls short of the mark. Theatre has always proved to be a space-forming process and has been based on an intermedial scenography – concepts that are now explored in two publications striving to find a suitably differentiating and cognitional tool for the discussion of these questions.
Production of a socio-political structure
In Antiquity, the theatre was already not only the site of an auspicious presentation but also a resonance space for the voices of the gods and the deceased. In the Middle Ages, the passion play extended the stage of the liturgy over various stations and, by mingling performers and audience, into the public urban space so that everyday secular activity had to take place within the framework of the gospel. And in the early Baroque era, when the first solid theatres of the modern age were built, the stage, constructed according to the latest concepts of image theory, served not only in the creation of a tableau but also in the production of a socio-political structure, which was only able to complete itself, far away from the theatre, in the connection with the real geopolitical landscape and its inhabitants.
These diverse manifestations of theatre have something in common; they all lead to a space that surpasses the actual site of the performance. Theatre can thus be regarded primarily as a scenographic process that on the basis of material conditions produces a space and is felt to be special because it surpasses the fundamental visible structures. In the stage space more is shown than that which is actually present. No longer does a man have to walk across an empty space while someone else watches him for an activity to become a theatrical event. But a special space does have to be created, one which exceeds conventional perception and behavior possibilities. Contemporary performances underscore this insight.
Reflection of living spaces
The result of these experimental space-forming processes is above all the reflection of how our living spaces function, how places, sites and landscapes are intertwined, as well as an increased awareness of that which evades us in the here and now. Scenography can therefore be also be understood as an instrument that serves primarily the criticism of those medial technologies which open up the new spaces which, although we have no concrete experience of them, nevertheless assert their “real” presence.
One does not have to agree entirely with this view that ascribes a clear intention to art, yet there remains a significant result of this engagement with the space practices of the theatre: the stage holds the possibility for a fundamental and necessary placing of our self in a structure surpassing our perception and experience. It raises the question not only as to the where of the event, but also and above all the question as to the location of the subject. This being posed, the expansion to imagined and fictionalized, to digitalized and virtual spaces and their playful exploration can be launched – or a start can be made with the conscious production of aesthetic and social, sacral and profane (counter)spaces.
- Birgit Wiens: Intermediale Szenografie. Raum-Ästhetiken am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts. Paderborn: Fink, 2014
- Norbert Otto Eke, Ulrike Haß, Irina Kaldrack (Hg.): Bühne. Raumbildende Prozesse im Theater. Paderborn: Fink, 2014